UNC Football: 2022 Positional Preview: Special Teams

CHAPEL HILL, NC - SEPTEMBER 18: Wide receiver Josh Downs #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels runs with the ball during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 18, 2021 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 59-39. (Photo by Peyton Williams/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - SEPTEMBER 18: Wide receiver Josh Downs #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels runs with the ball during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 18, 2021 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 59-39. (Photo by Peyton Williams/Getty Images) /

Our 2022 UNC Football positional previews are set to wrap up, as we take a closer look at the team’s special teams unit heading into the new season.

QB | RB | WR | TE | OL
DL  | LBCB  |  S  | ST

We’ve all done it. I’m just as guilty as the next person. We spend the majority of our analysis of a football team focusing our attention on the offense and defense of a football team, and understandably so.

But in so doing, we leave behind the third unit – the special teams. This is the group that can grab all the momentum of a game with one long return or a field-flipping punt or recovering a surprise onside kick. But this is also the group that can cost a team a game with a muffed punt on the goal line or a missed PAT in crunch time.

What does Special Teams Coordinator Larry Porter’s and the UNC football program’s special teams unit look like for the 2022 season? Let’s find out.


The Tar Heels lose kicker Grayson Atkins who was 19-23 on field goals last year, missing just one kick inside of 50 yards. The rest of the kicking game, however, is intact. Carolina brings back senior punter Ben Kiernan, who has started all 38 games of his career, and fellow senior Jonathan Kim, who has handled kick-off duties for all 25 games of his last two years and appeared in six games as a freshman.

Noah Burnette was named as the starting place-kicker earlier this week and will replace Atkins.

In the return game, Carolina will once again turn to star wide receiver Josh Downs to return punts. The other half of the return game will see change, however, as Ja’Quirious Conley was the leading kickoff returner last season (nine), before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Wofford. Even though Conley is expected to return this season (projection is the bye week before Notre Dame), he likely won’t be called upon for kickoff return duties.

The kickoff returner with the second-most yards and tied for the most returns (Ty Chandler) is off to the NFL. So where does UNC turn? Earlier in the week, during his “depth chart reveal” press conference, Coach Mack Brown said the kickoff return duties hadn’t been decided as of yet. However, in the depth chart Carolina published in their Florida A&M game notes, RBs Caleb Hood and Omarion Hampton are both listed.


Jonathan Kim (Kickoff Specialist | Senior | 6-0.75 | 215)

Kim has handled the kickoff duties for UNC each of the past two years as well as 33 of the team’s 81 kickoffs his freshman season. Grayson Atkins had one kickoff last season, but Kim has been responsible for the other 173 kickoffs the past two seasons, 141 of which have gone for touchbacks. If you’re keeping score at home, 81.5% of his kickoffs the last two seasons have been touchbacks. Just three of his career 206 kickoffs have gone out of bounds.

Noah Burnette (Place Kicker | RS Sophomore | 5-10.75 | 175)

Burnette won the starting job over senior Kim. He is yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in college but should have plenty of opportunities in Carolina’s season opener on Saturday against Florida A&M. Coming out of high school, Burnette was ranked the 20th kicker in his class according to Chris Sailer Kicking. During three seasons in high school, Burnette connected on 39 of 50 field goal attempts.

Ben Kiernan (Punter & Holder | Senior | 6-2 | 215)

Kiernan has essentially handled all of UNC’s punting duties the past three years and will do so again in his senior season. For his career, Kiernan has 23 punts of 50-plus yards, with a long of 63. His average yards per punt has grown every season from 41.32 to 43.68 to 43.69 last season.

Josh Downs (Punt Returner | Junior | 5-10.25 | 175)

Downs handled punt return duties for the first time in 2021 but was the only player Mack Brown called upon. He had 16 total returns for 156 yards, with a long of 38, and an average of 9.75 yards per return. The Tar Heels have to strike that careful balance of getting the ball in the hands of their star receiver as often as possible while realizing the injury risk that comes along with the return game.

Caleb Hood (Kickoff Returner | Sophomore | 5-11.75 | 225)

Hood had three kickoff returns in his true freshman season, tied with Ty Chandler for second-most on the team. He finished with 57 total return yards, for an average of 19 yards per return, with a long of 23.


Omarion Hampton (Kickoff Returner | Freshman | 6-0 | 220)


Carolina is in good shape, returning their primary punt returner, punter, and kickoff specialist, two of whom (Kiernan and Kim) have been in their respective roles for multiple years. In a season with question marks all over the field, Mack Brown can rest easy knowing what he has in Downs, Kiernan, and Kim.

In the department of less-experienced special teams positions, it’s hard to know what to expect from Burnette. Thankfully for the Tar Heels, they have several non-conference games to start the season in which they’ll learn just what they have in their sophomore place-kicker.

Similarly, Carolina is inexperienced in the area of kickoff return duties, however, they have several capable running backs who will be tapped to step in and perform.


Place Kicker

STARTER: Noah Burnette
BACKUP: Jonathan Kim

Kickoff Specialist


Punter (& Holder)

STARTER: Ben Kiernan


STARTER: Drew Little

Punt Return

STARTER: Josh Downs

Kickoff Return

STARTER: Omarion Hampton OR Caleb Hood

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